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Multilateral organisations

by Rod Alley

An active member of the United Nations since it was set up in 1945, New Zealand has played a part in many multilateral organisations – both globally and regionally. Multilateral engagement has allowed New Zealand to advance its interests internationally and have a voice on important issues.

New Zealand and multilateralism

The New Zealand government engages with many intergovernmental organisations. Over time, the scope, number and importance of these multilateral bodies has expanded greatly. The 20th century saw enhanced dependence between states and an increase in global problems that required a collective institutional response.

Types of organisations

New Zealand’s multilateral experience has been widespread. It includes engagement across a broad spectrum of international organisations. Some are global in reach, such as the United Nations (UN) and its numerous specialised agencies. Others are regional, such as the Pacific Islands Forum.

Some agencies are multi-purpose, such as the United Nations Development Programme, headed by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark from 2009 to 2017. Others are specialised and technical, such as the World Meteorological Organization, where New Zealand scientists supply and share important climate-change information.

Quack, quack, quack!

‘Here we sit listening to quack, quack, quack, hour after hour. We are sick of it!’ shouted William Jordan, New Zealand’s representative at the Paris peace talks in 1946.1 This meeting, like all multilateral gatherings, was a talkfest, and was made worse by delaying tactics from the Russian delegates. Jordan’s frustrated cry drew applause from the press.

Multilateral activity also takes place in other contexts. Notable examples are the conferences after the first and second world wars, which decided the financial and political shape of the industrialised world.

Purpose and process

The performance of multilateral organisations has been mixed, but membership has been deemed indispensable by New Zealand governments. As for other small countries, such organisations provide an essential way of advancing New Zealand’s interests and give it a voice in important issues. New Zealand’s representatives use a form of statecraft termed ‘multilateral diplomacy’. It requires collaboration, consensus forming and compromise, often across competing – at times conflicting – national interests.

Through multilateral organisations – particularly the United Nations – New Zealand has had contact with governments with whom it has no diplomatic representation, built common policy approaches, and fostered professional diplomatic and non-governmental interchanges. Doing so has required a grasp of detail, flexibility, and the ability to take opportunities as they arise.

New Zealand’s multilateral record has enhanced its diplomatic standing as a reliable and constructive global citizen.

First multilateral involvement

New Zealand came into being as part of a multilateral organisation. As one of the ‘white’ colonies of the British Empire, New Zealand engaged with Britain and the other colonies from the time of European settlement onwards. Its inclusion in the empire was automatic, but local support for the empire was strong, bolstered by the importance of Britain as a trading partner. Commonwealth relations, based on consent rather than coercion, were a model that New Zealand continued to use for engagement in multilateral organisations into the 1960s and 1970s.

Government interest

Government interest, shaped by trade, defence and domestic politics, shifted over time. The British Empire continued to be New Zealand’s focus until the 1920s and 1930s, when the League of Nations became a significant forum. Attention swung back to the Commonwealth at the end of the 1930s. When it became clear that Britain could not defend New Zealand, government interest moved toward the United States and Australia. Alliances such as the ANZUS defence pact with Australia and the US, and SEATO (the South East Asia Treaty Organization), were an outcome of that shift.

Party politics also shaped multilateral activity. Conservative governments favoured the British Empire and the Commonwealth. Left-leaning governments shared that commitment, but were also more likely to be enthusiastic about the League of Nations (from 1920) and then the United Nations (from 1945).

Areas of activity

Multilateral activity abroad has been matched by greater government agency responsibilities and public policy development in New Zealand. Areas of concern have included war and conflict, size and remoteness, trade and finance, rule-making, and human rights and welfare.

The 2000s

In the 2000s international institutions face challenges of legitimacy and effectiveness. Some believe that they are unwieldy, unrepresentative of the global poor and unduly hierarchical. There are demands for reform of the UN and the major international financial institutions.

Calls for reform were underlined by the 1999 emergence of the Group of 20 (finance ministers and central-bank governors from 20 major economies), growing prominence of stronger regional powers and worsening global economic and social disparities. This reinforced New Zealand’s need to enhance a principled, constructive and independent contribution to multilateral activities.


War and conflict

Among multilateral activity’s most significant goals is rule-governed collective peace and security, supported by peaceful dispute settlement. The absence of peaceful dispute settlement caused the human calamity of the First World War, which cost New Zealand dearly.

League of Nations

Like other countries, New Zealand joined the League of Nations, formed in the ashes of the First World War to prevent a repetition of such collective failure. This occurred despite Prime Minister William Massey’s reluctance in 1919 to see New Zealand join the league. Massey believed that the country’s best strategy for protection remained with Britain and the ties of the British Empire.

New Zealand supported the terms of the covenant on which the league was based, while stronger members sabotaged its objectives – allowing Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria and north-east China, and Italy’s 1935 aggression against Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Alarmed by the league’s impotence, New Zealand officials circulated recommendations in 1936 for a stronger system of collective security enforcement. New Zealand was ‘prepared to the extent of our power, to join in the collective application of force against any future aggressor’. 1 This proved too little, too late.

Victor’s choice

After the League of Nations was formed in 1919, New Zealand’s young and radical Labour Party condemned it as a victor’s organisation. Instead they argued for ‘a Union of Peoples, unfettered by class privilege and secret methods’, which would provide ‘the machinery for the settlement of international differences in a civilized manner’.2 Later, the first Labour government would affirm its commitment to the league.

United Nations

The aspiration for a robust system of collective security enforcement was revived in 1945 in San Francisco during formulation of the United Nations Charter. New Zealand and Australia argued for a system of collective security and peacekeeping involving the new organisation’s full membership. This would have excluded the planned Security Council veto provision, which could be used by any one of its five permanent members (the United States, the Soviet Union, France, the United Kingdom and China).

However, these hopes were dashed. The veto remained, allowing any one of the major powers to block draft resolutions, however strongly supported by smaller countries. A deepening Cold War polarised the UN membership, essential peace and settlement functions were compromised, and hopes for nuclear disarmament diminished. New Zealand continued to oppose the use and abuse of the veto system.

UN Security Council

New Zealand served on the UN Security Council as an elected non-permanent member in 1954–55, 1966 and 1993–94. Within the council, New Zealand tended to vote as part of the western anti-communist bloc. Its sympathy for white minority governments in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and South Africa resulted in New Zealand’s 1982 attempt to join the Security Council being voted down by the UN General Assembly.

1954–55 term

As a member of the Security Council in 1954–55, New Zealand asserted the council’s primary responsibility for deliberating post-coup developments in Guatemala and opposed American attempts to have the crisis handled regionally by the Organisation of American States. The coup had been a result of a covert operation by the United States.

Encouraged by the British, New Zealand proposed to some effect council initiatives designed to defuse the Taiwan offshore islands crisis that seriously inflamed US–China relations in early 1955. China had attacked the islands of Quemoy (now known as Kinmen) and Matsu at a time when sensitivity was heightened by the Korean War.

1966 term

Enlargement of the Security Council’s non-permanent membership allowed New Zealand to serve a one-year term on the council in 1966. This was the height of the Vietnam War, but superpower veto power left the Security Council impotent over the conflict. It was also a time of increasing African and Asian assertion. New Zealand supported the white minority in Rhodesia, opposing the use of force by the British following Rhodesia’s 1965 unilateral declaration of independence.

1993–94 term

New Zealand’s position as a small state, Pacific interests and independence (exemplified by its anti-nuclear policy), as well as solid UN standing as a reliable and constructive international citizen, helped it win election to the Security Council in 1992.

New Zealand was a lonely voice on the council in supporting resolute international preventive action and an expanded UN presence to halt the 1994 Rwandan genocide. New Zealand used its Security Council membership to assist in the establishment of war-crimes tribunals for Rwanda.

During the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, New Zealand supported Macedonia’s admission to UN membership, and setting up a war-crimes tribunal. Verbal support from New Zealand was matched by a substantial military commitment to the UN Protection Force for Bosnia. New Zealand also backed a UN presence in Haiti following the United States' overthrowing of that country's military-led government, and chaired the Iraq sanctions committee.

Iraq, 2003

The unwillingness of the UN Security Council to provide an unambiguous mandate for the use of force against Iraq in 2003 was instrumental in New Zealand’s refusal to commit forces to that conflict.

  1. Quoted in Clyde Eagleton, ‘Reform of the covenant of the League of Nations.’ American Political Science Review 31, no. 3 (1937), p. 465. Back
  2. ‘Labour Party’s attitude.’ Evening Post, 10 August 1921, p. 3. Back

Size and remoteness

Like other small states, New Zealand has looked to international institutions to help reduce uncertainty and vulnerability through rule-making, while offering opportunities to build a reputation of reliable global citizenship. Global citizenship includes encouraging cooperation through bridge-building and mediating.

Regional and small state cooperation

Norman Kirk, prime minister from 1972 to 1974, had ideas about possible regional multilateral economic and social cooperation that were gradually realised. For Kirk, cohesion among small states regionally could act as an effective counterweight to political, military or economic domination by larger powers. He also believed that it was small states that would ensure UN Charter principles were upheld. Without that, he said, major powers would move towards bilateralism, with Europe becoming increasingly inward-looking.

South Pacific nuclear action

At the UN General Assembly in 1975, New Zealand aired the possibility of establishing a South Pacific nuclear weapons-free zone. This emerged as a treaty a decade later. New Zealand also exerted sustained pressure to end nuclear-weapons testing and, more recently, have nuclear weapons removed from alert status – which means they can be launched within minutes of a perceived attack.

Mediation at work

After France sank the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in 1985, a dispute arose over compensation. New Zealand and France asked the secretary general of the UN, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, to mediate, agreeing beforehand to accept his decision. His 1986 determination required France to pay NZ $13 million to New Zealand, not injure New Zealand trade with Europe, and accept terms for the incarceration of the responsible French state operatives, Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur.

Local interest

Taking opportunities offered by the UN forum was prompted by public support for disarmament, environmental sustainability and human rights. Domestic professional, technical, private-sector and technical advice further informed New Zealand’s multilateral strategies and objectives.

Strategic position

One difficulty was New Zealand’s awkward group location at the UN – the country was included as an ‘other’ in the West European and Others grouping (along with Australia and Canada). Group location affects nomination for positions within the UN system. Asian states (an alternative grouping) did not regard New Zealand as a natural partner within the UN.

As a result, New Zealand has been something of a nomad in search of a grouping that makes sense geographically. However, that has had advantages, creating scope for fresh alignments of interest as others lost potency or relevance.

Trade and finance

World Trade Organization

New Zealand has been a vigorous promoter of a rules-based system for trade and the elimination of trade barriers through the World Trade Organization (WTO). Engagement with such multilateral activity has imparted policy continuity from both Labour- and National-led governments in seeking liberalised trade in agriculture.

Sleepless in Seattle

Mike Moore, former New Zealand prime minister, served as director general of the WTO from 1999 to 2002. He oversaw the launch of the Doha Round and China’s admission to the WTO – and the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle, met by mass protests. Thousands of street protesters helped disrupt negotiations and deadlock the Doha Round timetable. The demonstrations reflected growing opposition to corporate globalisation and doubt about the advantages of trade liberalisation.

Cairns Group

New Zealand has been a key player in the 19-member Cairns Group. Formed in 1986, the group is a coalition of agricultural trading nations committed to free and fair trade in agriculture, the elimination of trade-distorting domestic and export subsidies, and major tariff reductions.

A key focus has been the trade negotiation process conducted through ‘rounds’ under WTO auspices, which are designed to lower trade barriers. Beginning in 2001, but incomplete as of 2011, the Doha Round (named after Doha in Qatar, where the round began) repeatedly stumbled over agricultural import rules.

Trade disputes

Elsewhere New Zealand has utilised WTO procedures to pursue trade dispute settlements, including with Canada (over dairy exports in 1997), the US (over lamb in 1999 and steel in 2002) and Australia (over apples in 2007). Although New Zealand negotiated bilateral and multilateral trade agreements which gave and allowed preferential access to markets, this did not reduce the importance of the Doha Round.

Financial organisations

New Zealand joined the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1961, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1973. All three organisations undertake critical and closely considered evaluations of New Zealand’s domestic economic and wider public-policy performance.

The decision to join the IMF and the World Bank aroused controversy in New Zealand on grounds that this risked compromising economic control. At the time, New Zealand was fostering the development of local industries through exchange controls and import licensing. Conditions attached to IMF loans subsequently required assurances that New Zealand would follow deflationary policies, designed to reduce its continuing balance-of-payments problems.


Increased globalisation saw domestic interests intensify their monitoring of New Zealand’s multilateral conduct. The government learned a sharp lesson in 1998 when it attempted to introduce the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). This OECD-led initiative collapsed in the face of combined international opposition by environmental, consumer and social rights groups. They viewed it as a challenge to the powers of democratically elected governments. According to its critics, the MAI amounted to a corporate bill of rights – giving corporations rights that overrode local laws. They argued that it privileged multinational commercial investment by allowing national environmental laws and regulations to be bypassed.


Less contentious was New Zealand’s membership of Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Its goals are free and open trade and investment in the APEC region by 2010 for industrialised economies, and 2020 for developing economies. These are non-binding goals, reached by consensus and undertaken on a voluntary basis.

Joining as a founder member in 1989, New Zealand hosted a key APEC meeting in Auckland in 1999. At this meeting APEC’s 21 members went beyond their usual role, taking diplomatic initiatives designed to help East Timor reach independent statehood. New Zealand has regularly used APEC meetings to build support for trade liberalisation, reduce border transaction costs and ease the movement of skills, goods and qualifications.

International Organization of Securities Commissions

The New Zealand Securities Commission has played an active role in the International Organization of Securities Commissions since joining in 1986. This agency aims to foster and promote transparent financial market standards, investor protection and market-regulation requirements. All were found seriously wanting by the 2008 global financial crisis.

Rule-making: maritime, environmental and criminal

Most multilateral activity is rule-governed. Norms also develop that create expectations of appropriate international conduct. New Zealand has contributed to this process, using UN functions and channels to help de-legitimise nuclear weapons, ban landmines and cluster munitions, and put into treaty form the rights of the disabled.

Exclusive economic zone

As a maritime state with the fourth-largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world (some 3.6 million square kilometres), New Zealand has supported multilateral cooperation to further ocean governance. To effectively promote sustainable development of marine resources, a regime of rules, norms and institutions evolved under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Multilateral cooperation was required to preserve the marine environment, suppress piracy, legitimise a territorial sea delimitation of 12 nautical miles (meaning this area is legally part of New Zealand), and recognise the right of coastal states to establish an EEZ stretching 200 nautical miles from their baselines of the territorial sea.

New Zealand had much to gain from a settled EEZ regime. In 2008 the United Nations confirmed New Zealand's right to exploit minerals and petroleum in a further 1.7 million kilometres of seabed on its continental shelf.


The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development and its so-called ‘Agenda 21’ indicative principles encouraged New Zealand to institute legislative changes in forestry, biodiversity, fisheries, hazardous substances and ozone-layer protection. Professional diplomatic capacities were fully tested by the multilateral politics that complicated implementation of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which limited human-generated atmospheric emissions and was ratified by New Zealand in 2002.

International Criminal Court

In 2000 the New Zealand Parliament passed the International Crimes and International Criminal Court Act criminalising genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes as defined in the 1998 Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. These offences can be heard in New Zealand courts regardless of where they have been committed.

International Court of Justice and Law Commission

The International Court of Justice was set up in 1945 as part of the United Nations. Alone among Western countries, New Zealand supported a 1994 General Assembly resolution endorsing reference to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion on the legality of the use of nuclear weapons.

New Zealanders have served with distinction on the International Law Commission and the International Court of Justice.

Rights and welfare

The New Zealand public has consistently viewed the United Nations’ welfare function as equal to its responsibilities for the maintenance of peace and security. When the United Nations Charter was developed at San Francisco in 1945 Prime Minister Peter Fraser was instrumental in having the Economic and Social Council elevated to the status of a principal organ of the UN. A year earlier, Finance Minister Walter Nash chaired a conference in Philadelphia that redesigned the International Labour Organization. Leading educational administrator Clarence Beeby was closely involved in the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The New Zealand public saw these figures as leading internationalists.

Declarations and covenants

During the 1948 formulation of the seminal Universal Declaration of Human Rights, New Zealand insisted that economic, social and cultural rights were as important as civil and political rights. Two separate covenants on these rights were finally agreed in 1966, and New Zealand ratified the declaration in 1978. The UN provided the setting for negotiating these and subsequent rights covenants.

Covenants New Zealand has ratified include those on:

  • outlawing slavery (1972)
  • racial discrimination (1972)
  • genocide (1978)
  • discrimination against women (1984)
  • torture (1989)
  • the rights of the child (1993)
  • the rights of disabled persons (2008).

Related domestic agencies that were set up included the Human Rights Commission, Office of the Race Relations Conciliator and the Commissioner for Children.

Women and indigenous rights

Major UN-sponsored international conferences on the rights of women (in 1975, 1980, 1985 and 1995) saw high-level political and non-governmental New Zealand representation. More contentious was New Zealand support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (adopted by the General Assembly in 2007). Government reservations regarding the declaration’s legal content were overcome for domestic political reasons and New Zealand signed the declaration in New York in 2010.


Even more controversial was the clash between New Zealand’s international responsibilities to uphold human rights and the country’s fondness for sport. In the wake of the divisive 1981 rugby tour by the South African Springbok team, New Zealand was censured before the UN General Assembly. This decreased the country’s chances of gaining election to the Security Council.


New Zealand’s position on the Springbok tour contrasted with its generally progressive international posture on decolonisation. During the UN Charter’s formation, Prime Minister Peter Fraser chaired the trusteeship committee, which confirmed the principle of self-determination by non-self-governing territories. Accountability to the UN for orderly decolonisation was now established.

New Zealand was the one colonial power that supported a seminal 1960 UN General Assembly resolution urging the acceleration of decolonisation. As Western Samoa moved to statehood (completed in 1962), and the Cook Islands and Niue to full internal self-government in free association with New Zealand (1965 and 1974), New Zealand followed UN processes.

Samoan independence

Multilateral discussions on decolonisation were closely watched. When Peter Fraser visited Western Samoa in 1944, Tupua Tamasese Mea’ole, a paramount chief speaking for the three royal families, told him that self-government was ‘the main point that you had in the charter in the conference that took place on the sea between the Prime Minister of England … and the President of the United States … we have learnt about this and it has been confirmed by you, Sir, in the Parliament of New Zealand’.1

In 2011 Tokelau remained a non-self-governing territory. In UN-monitored referenda in 2003 and 2007 it failed to reach the self-stipulated two-thirds majority required for a change in status to self-government in free association with New Zealand.

New Zealand contribution

The UN’s specialised agencies, including those focusing on health, welfare, development, food and agriculture, and promoting human rights and equality, have had regular interaction with New Zealand. Officials, professionals and non-governmental representatives have served with distinction in these areas.

    • Quoted in Malcolm McKinnon, Independence and foreign policy: New Zealand in the world since 1935. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1993, p. 66. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Rod Alley, 'Multilateral organisations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Rod Alley, i tāngia i te 20 o Hune 2012